Historian: Appalachia has record of social injustice

Historican Ron Eller talks about the history of the impact of poverty on Appalachia during an event Friday morning at OU’s McCracken Hall.

The speech was part of a conference at Ohio University commemorating the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Baines Johnson launching the War on Poverty, and his speech in Athens in May 1964.

Eller, a West Virginia native and professor at the University of Kentucky, has written multiple books on Appalachian poverty, including his latest, "Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945."

He explained that the victims of poverty often are the ones blamed for their predicament, and that their situation of generational struggle is often placed at the feet of a "culture of poverty."

He said that other academicians have written books peddling this line of thinking. But his own experience with Appalachian poverty and his research do not bear this out.

"It did not take us long to realize that there was nothing particularly wrong about the attitudes and values of these families struggling with poverty," he said. "They did not value education because they themselves were not valued by their schools."

Middle-class children have access to books and resources those struggling with poverty do not, and middle-class teachers often have carried lower expectations for certain children from certain families and certain areas, Eller said.

"They were poor because their fathers did not have jobs, and often their fathers did not have jobs because they voted the wrong way, or their alternatives for employment were limited," he said.

"We learned, along with other poverty warriors, that it was not some deviant culture that causes the inequality in our communities, but the consequences of race, class and gender subjugation, that had allowed some to succeed and others to be trapped in generational poverty."

The ground was uneven, Eller said, because resources were unequally distributed, the wealth generated by hard labor was shipped out of the region to enrich others, and public institutions were scattered and weak because taxes were sparse or non-existent.

Moreover, he said, the political systems responded more to those with economic power than to the common good.

"Government strategies for economic growth unduly benefited economic elites and distant investors," he said. "Let me be clear: The inequalities within Appalachia and between Appalachia and the rest of the nation are the result of relationships of power, not the deviant qualities of race or regional culture."

Eller said that with the current explosion of wealth and income inequality in America, parallels can be drawn to the experience of Appalachia, and some have gone so far as to refer to the current situation across the country as the "Appalachification of America."

SO WHAT HAPPENED AFTER LBJ launched his War on Poverty? Eller said that it was largely lost as early as 1972.

"When young poverty warriors and local poor people began to organize in order to confront these power structures, political elites within the region complained loudly that the War on Poverty was fomenting revolution, not uplift," he said.

Using tactics employed by segregationists to resist the Civil Rights movement, Eller said, mountain elites accused the Office of Economic Opportunity of funding communist sympathizers.

President Richard Nixon appointed Donald Rumsfeld to dismantle the OEO, Eller said, and Rumsfeld in turn hired a young Dick Cheney to aid him in that effort.

"Public policy toward the poor in the last quarter of the 20th century shifted to one of maintenance," he said. "But the War on Poverty was over."

If the War on Poverty failed to eliminate poverty in America, let alone Appalachia, Eller argued, it was not because of a deficient culture within the mountains, but because of a lack of national will to build a fair and equitable society and create a level playing field within the region.

"Appalachia is not part of some other America, but is a reflection of America," he said. "Anti-poverty programs did little to address problems of inequitable land ownership, capital outflow, or political cronyism in Appalachia."

Programs designed to bring jobs and economic growth, he said, concentrated resources on middle-class centers, failed to protect land and water quality, and encouraged the growth of consumer dependency.

And what's to be done now?

"We can pick up the challenge laid down by President Johnson to those students in 1964," Eller said. "We can become active in the quest to build a better society and bring equal justice to all citizens. We can renew the energy that motivated the post-war generation to continue the American struggle to extend the American dream to all of its citizens."

The War on Poverty may have failed to achieve its objectives, Eller said, but the country has learned much from that failure.

"Its goals remind us that democracy is a continuing process," he said. "Perhaps it's time for us to abandon the politics of self-interest, and recover the spirit of collective responsibility that motivated the War on Poverty. This, in fact, may be the defining challenge of our time."

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